Dinkytown businesses continue to close doors to poor economy

Kane Loukas

Nobody told Dinkytown about the boom economy.
In the past three years, as the American economic miracle has hit its stride, the normally lively and healthy intersection of Fourth Street Southeast and 14th Avenue Southeast — the heart of Dinkytown — has suffered an ugly decline.
Shifts in student housing, a move toward downtown and suburban shopping venues and tightening restrictions on parking near the University have left Dinkytown in dire straits, with its remaining business owners scurrying to regroup and hopefully salvage the historic neighborhood.
The downturn began in 1996 when cornerstone businesses like National Camera Exchange, Nelson’s Office Supply and, later, the landmark Gray’s Campus Drug closed up shop.
“There is just not the traffic through Dinkytown that there used to be,” said Bud Platt the day before he closed Gray’s Drug after 50 years of operation. His observation was shared by the handful of other business owners and managers who decided to follow his lead and throw in the towel.
Traffic had indeed slowed down during 1996-97, but it was largely blamed on road construction that redirected traffic away from Dinkytown. The expectation was that business would pick up once road crews pulled out in spring of 1997.
That hasn’t happened and the closures have accelerated.
In the past two weeks alone, Rocky Rococo’s Pizza shut down and Penco Artists’ Supply Warehouse announced that their business would meet the same fate. A month before, George’s Bakery, a mainstay for Dinkytown doughnut fans, also called it quits.
Conrad Segal, co-owner of Penco, said he chose to close his two-year-old store because of dim growth prospects. He plans to focus resources on his more promising downtown Minneapolis and Menominee, Wis., stores.
In search of the long-term trends causing the demise of the old University neighborhood, business owners have drawn on several explanations, some valid and some otherwise.
Kristen Eide-Tollefson, the owner-manager of the Book House, and Tom Dale, owner of Tom the Tailor, as well as others in the business community, share a theory on the closings: A lot of the businesses moving out are corporate franchises or part of larger enterprises, as were Kinko’s, Nelson’s Office Supplies, Perkins and National Camera. For them, some said, a drop in profits on account of road construction is reason enough to relocate if short-term gains are the main goal.
“When a corporation sees a significant drop in traffic, then they pull,” said Eide-Tollefson.
But a brief look at the names hanging above vacant storefronts tell a different story. Even considering Kinko’s, Nelson’s, National Camera, Perkins and now Rocky Rococo’s, the number of small mom-and-pop, locally-owned business failures far outnumber the corporate ones.
A more accurate diagnosis shows that Dinkytown’s biggest problems don’t hinge on the decisions made in New York corporate high-rises, but in its own backyard.
The Quarry shopping area a few miles north of campus on Stinson Boulevard is seen as a strong competitor by Dinkytown business owners, especially since it boasts lots of free parking and a grocery store. And, for entertainment, students go instead to downtown and Uptown for weekend nightlife.
“The student today doesn’t get dropped off by Mom and Dad and never leaves the dorm,” said Dan Zielske, a regional manager for Espresso Royale Caffe and president of the Dinkytown Business Association. “They’re far more mobile and they’re all over town.”
In addition to spending their money all over town, students are no longer living in a concentrated area near campus or in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood bordering Dinkytown.
Even if off-campus students want to drive to Dinkytown, restrictions introduced in the past five years have increasingly discouraged commuters from parking in the residential area bordering Dinkytown and walking past shops on their way to class.
Currently, vacant storefronts and buildings number more than a dozen, and large “Space for Rent” signs are more eye-grabbing than the billboards for businesses that are actually open.
The scene isn’t reassuring, but some long-time Dinkytown veterans are more optimistic than others. “This is just a phase in Dinkytown’s history,” said Eide-Tollefson, who has worked in Dinkytown for 23 years.
To recover from the slump, she and more than 10 others in May joined an alternative business association that will concentrate on the grass roots foundation they say Dinkytown was built on.
“The problem with the Dinkytown Business Association is that many of the members are corporate employees and they lack the entrepreneurial spirit of the town,” said Dale. He said he wants the new association to start with the advice of independent business owners and work up, instead of starting with the corporate business philosophy and working down, as the original Dinkytown Business Association does.
In the coming months, business owners will be meeting to gather information and talk about what improvements can be made to enhance the business climate and attract those businesses that will prosper.
The alternative business association, which holds weekly meetings at the Dinkydale Deli at 9:00 a.m. every Wednesday, encourages Dinkytown patrons and residents to attend and share with them what they see as the essence and core of Dinkytown, and how it can be made visible again.
In the foreseeable future, one new store is scheduled to move into the former University Computer space on 14th Street.